SHERABAD, Afghanistan (GP)—In a small village in northern Afghanistan, Aq Mohammed keeps a watchful eye over a flock of sheep. Somewhere in the mud-walled pen holding a sea of white, brown and black wool are two ewes of particular importance to the 52-year-old father of seven. That’s because they aren’t just sheep — they’re a lifeline for his struggling family.
Mohammed’s is one of 13 Afghan households involved in a community development project facilitated by Global Partners (GP). Focused on micro-enterprise animal husbandry, the project helps impoverished families build their own small businesses by training them to raise sheep. GP “seeds” each family’s venture by loaning them two ewes, the foundation from which they can build their personal flock. Mohammed says the project has given him new hope for his family’s future, which, until recently, looked grim.
Like many Afghans suffering under the country’s war-crippled economy, Mohammed lives well below the poverty line. His household’s average annual income is less than $500. With no education or land to farm, he is forced to work as a day laborer, earning only $3 to $4 a day. The money must feed, clothe and house nine people, including Mohammed and his wife.
Worse, four of the couple’s children are severely physically and mentally challenged. One of Mohammed’s sons, a man who appears to be in his early 20s, leans against the wall of the sheep pen staring vacantly at the sky. His thin legs stretch out in a twisted pile across the dirt and sheep droppings. The young man must drag himself from place to place; a wheelchair is a luxury the family simply can’t afford.
Kevin is a GP field worker who oversees the shepherding project. He says it’s already helping lift families like Mohammed’s out of poverty.
Working in partnership with local leadership, GP began by purchasing two ewes for each of the 13 families that village elders selected for the project. Over a two-year period, the families were taught how to feed, clean, vaccinate and grow their flock. GP provided two rams for breeding, and births are tracked and attributed to respective families’ ewes via an ear-tagging system.
But this isn’t a handout. The families and the community must contribute to the project, too. In addition to providing all the day-to-day care for the sheep, the 13 families must also grow and harvest alfalfa, a key part of the flock’s diet. The village donated the land to farm the alfalfa as well as the property to house the sheep.
“We don’t want to only give handouts because, if I give you food today, then tomorrow you’re hungry again and I haven’t really done anything for you,” Kevin says. “But if we can help you help yourself — teach you things that are going to improve your health, improve your community and your standard of living — that’s what GP wants to accomplish.”
Kevin says that two sheep may not sound like a lot, but at an average sale price of $200 per ewe, GP’s loan essentially doubles each family’s annual income. As “payment” for the families’ work, they also receive monthly food stipends including oil, rice and flour, as well as supplemental feed for the flock. In addition, the sheep themselves provide an immediate flow of resources and income.
“We can sell the milk and wool,” Mohammed says. Families also use sheep droppings as fuel for cooking and fertilizer for the alfalfa fields.
Best of all, Kevin says, the shepherding project is self-sustaining and reproducible. At the end of the two-year training program, multiplication of each two ewe “mini-flock” will add between eight and 12 new sheep per family. Participants “graduate” after paying back the balance of their loan.
“Their responsibility is to give GP back two healthy sheep — the rest are theirs to keep,” Kevin explains. “And we’ll recruit another family into the co-op and give the two sheep to them, so the co-op is constantly growing.”
As their flocks continue to grow, families can begin using the sheep’s meat, too, or selling it at local markets — much more lucrative than milk or wool.
“Now we know how to take care of the animals, and we can give them vaccinations,” Mohammed says. “We will keep our sheep and increase their numbers to support our family.”
Kevin believes the project has given the Afghan father genuine hope for the future. “A lot of people here, they’ve been fighting for 30-plus years now, and they just don’t think their future’s going to get any brighter, you know?” he says. “But now Mohammed sees that he will finally be able to provide for his family.
“We’re not here just for a job,” Kevin adds. “We’re here to see lives changed for the better.”
Jim Durham is a freelance writer based in the United States